The Suez Canal Crisis is a very interesting event, and more so the more more I look at it.
In the traditional wargame realm, it doesn’t really get a lot of love. It’s an asymmetric battle, making for a difficult player-versus-player match-up. It’s also in that time frame where the gamer is starting to itch for the modern weapons of the 60s, and we’re thrown back into basically a match-up of World War II equipment.
Both of these are pluses in the context of the History of Games. First, asymmetric warfare is a the norm, not the exception, for the post-World War II era, particularly in any conflict involving the major powers. So getting this right will serve us well over the next 50-60 (virtual) years of gaming.
Secondly, the lower-tech nature of this fight opens up the possibility of using World War II -specific engines in this outside-the-box scenario. Specifically, this could fit well in the Command Ops system.
Also very intriguing is the nature of this fight in the global context. In many ways, the “game” here isn’t the maneuvering of fighting units across the desert. It is the use of a proxy war to intervene militarily in an economic dispute, at a time when the world is already looking particularly unstable. Watch the newsreel that I’ve linked in the timeline. Notice that the reporting on the Sinai and Suez situation is followed up by the possibility of an Eastern European nation breaking away from the Soviets. In fact, the lack of support for the Hungarian freedom fighters by the west is often blamed on the fact that it would be hypocritical at a time when the roles were reversed in Egypt.
To look at the proximate causes of the Suez Crisis, start with the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. In response to rioting in Cairo in late January 1952 as well as the dissatisfaction based on incompetence, corruption, and submission to colonialism of the Egyptian Royalty, the Egyptian army ousted King Farouk in a coup d’état on July 23rd, 1952. On June 18th, 1953 the monarchy was abolished entirely and Egypt became a Republic.
The new government was founded on Arab Nationalism and socialist reform, and found itself at odds with the policies of the region’s colonial powers, Britain and France. Britain, due to the direct and historic colonial ties, and France, due to a pan-Arab nationalism which put Republican Egypt on the wrong side of France’s war in Algeria. While the relationship between Britain and Egypt remained complex, it was likely the Baghdad Pact that sent those relations into an unrecoverable, downward spiral.
As tensions with Britain rose, Nasser also angered the United States. A growing reliance on Eastern Block weapons trade as well as the Egyptian recognition of Communist China caused Eisenhower’s government to play a game of international chicken. The U.S. withdrew their economic support for the Aswan Dam construction project, assuming that the Soviet Union was incapable (economically) of picking up the slack. Either the Soviets would fail to back their new Egyptian friends, forcing Nasser back into the fold, or they would attempt to fund the project, thereby crippling the Soviet economy. Either way the U.S. wins.
Except, Nasser’s response was the nationalization of the Suez Canal.
Britain was taken by surprise. They had, in fact, negotiated a transfer of control of the canal to the Egyptian at the end of 1968. The seizure (on July 30th, 1956) provoked enthusiasm for an immediate military response. As tempers cooled, however, the risk of getting on the wrong side of America and the U.N. caused the British to search for alternatives.
The French also were eager for an immediate military response. In both France and England, Nasser was likened to a Hitler, whose aggression needed to be nipped in the bud. England, in particular, feared the damage to their fighting power if the Soviets were able to restrict passage through the Suez Canal.
Having gained independence less than a decade earlier, Israel was continuing to fight the Palestinians, who saw Israeli rule as illegitimate. Even without a hot war with Egypt and other surrounding Arab nations, Palestinian fighters were supported with finances, arms, and manpower from Arab territory, such as the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip. Cross-border raids were not uncommon as Israel attempted to neutralize this threat. Plans existed for larger incursions (for example, a complete occupation of Gaza) as well as for preventative strikes in anticipation of war with their Arab neighbors.
For those of us of a certain age, Israel has always been the West’s great ally in the Middle East. In that context, the early history of Israeli independence appears baffling. It was the British, during the First World War, that advanced the idea of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. But by the Second World War, their enthusiasm had waned to the point that they only seemed to be neutral because they couldn’t entirely go back on their position of the Balfour Declaration without losing face. Once the Israeli War for Independence started, England’s Arab client states (including British-backed armies) sided with the Arab Nationalists and the Palestinians. By 1956, England was once again fully behind Israel, but now the United States was the one to come to the aid of Egypt so as to peacefully end the war. The reasoning was that, were the war to escalate to a conflict between the superpowers, the U.S. would have been drawn in on the side of Israel. Even still, it is tough to tell the players without a program.
Back to the war at hand, the plan for Egypt and the Suez Canal consisted of Israel seeming to make another cross-border raid, and using the raid as cover to launch a full-scale assault culminating in the occupation of Gaza and the Sinai. Britain and France, in on it all along, would feign outrage and threaten to intervene unless Israel and Egypt agreed to terms (which they knew would be unacceptable to Egypt). When “peacekeepers” from the UK and France landed in Egypt, Israel would halt short of the Suez Canal, as prearranged. This would free the UK and France to forceably return the canal to British control
Although we can’t know for sure, it seems unlikely that Israel would have started this war without the backing, and urging, of England and France. That notwithstanding, Israel believed themselves capable of winning the war even without England and France and had planned for the eventuality. As it was, the plan came together and was a massive success militarily. So much so, that any other outcome (and thus the hope of a balanced, enjoyable wargaming scenario) seems unlikely.
The political fallout, in retrospect, seems equally predictable. Initially, support in England for the “peacekeeping” was high. However, things fell apart once the obviousness of the pretense became apparent. Even some strong supporters of military action against Egypt now found themselves opposed to situation at hand, having been left in the dark with the gambit as was planned. The U.S. became very concerned about escalation with the Soviet Union, who now threatened NATO allies. If the USSR escalated those threats, that in turn would mean a global war between the superpowers.
So what is the “game” in all of this? Tactical and operational simulations of the battle, of course, can be played out, but is it really possible to ever “change the course of history?” Or does Israel always capture the Sinai eventually? Strategically, the geo-political situation consists of coordinating with the other major powers to back or foil the plan to retake the Suez Canal without starting World War III. But again, is it ever possible to accomplish anything except a temporary occupation of the Sinai by Israel? It may be telling that playing the Twilight Struggle Suez Crisis Event Card docks the West 4 Influence Points, spread among Britain, France, and Israel. The only winning move is not to play.
But play we must, so I’ve broken this topic down into a series of posts.
- For me, it all starts at Bir Gifgafa on the Sinai Peninsula, which was an old Avalon Hill Arab-Israeli War scenario representing the big armor clash of the 1956 war. It seems at the center of all wargaming surrounding the Suez Crisis. I lead off by looking at that old board game.
- As I was digging into the subject of the 1956 war, I came across some interesting 1948 War of Independence information, so I’ll take a detour through that material. Even before I go there, however, Talonsoft’s old game Divided Ground tutorial scenarios are all based on 1948 battles, and so we will have a discussion about Divided Ground.
- Next, we’ll head back, back in time to some games on the 1948 Independence war that (quite literally) put Israel back on the map. See also a brief review of a documentary on the birth of the Israeli Air Force.
- Returning to 1956, we’ll first take a look at battle that preceded the main war by a few weeks.
- Finally, to Operation Kadesh itself. We’ll look first at the battle from the high level.
- At this point, I’ll circle back around to the Arab-Israeli War scenarios from Avalon Hill, and the computer conversions of those scenarios. Both WinSP:MBT and Divided Ground have created some board game -inspired battles.
- The battle in Gaza, near the fortresses at Rafah, provide another comparison between different game engines’ treatment of this era. Although I didn’t write about it at the time, I continued working on the Command Ops 2 implementation of a Bir Gifgafa scenario. I finally posted about it more than three years later.
- Finally, for our last stop on the tour, we’ll take a look at the possible escalation of the Suez Crisis beyond the region through a scenario built for CMANO.
For navigational purposes, here are the posts in order: